Eknath Shinde-Ajit Pawar strife could test strength of saffron alliance

Political and administrative situation has changed quite a lot after Ajit’s entry

40-Maharashtra-Chief-Minister-Eknath-Shinde-and-Deputy-Chief-Minister-Ajit-Pawar Troubled ties: Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde (left) and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar | Amey Mansabdar

A FEW WEEKS AGO, after the tragic death of nearly 20 people in a day at the municipal general hospital at Kalwa in Thane city, there was a spat between Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar. After a cabinet meeting, Ajit asked Shinde how so many people could die in a single day at a hospital in ‘his’ Thane. A visibly irked Shinde told Ajit that he was chief minister not just for Thane, but for entire Maharashtra. Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had to step in to salvage the situation.

Recent developments in Maharashtra point to persistent unease and increasing friction between Shinde and Ajit. Another example of the growing tension is the chief minister’s note asking all files from all departments to him to be routed through Fadnavis. It effectively means that Ajit, who holds key portfolios such as finance and planning, cannot send his files to the chief minister directly, but only through Fadnavis. To be fair to Shinde, he used to follow this practice earlier, too―but it was before Ajit and his team of Nationalist Congress Party rebels were inducted into the cabinet.

The political and administrative situation in Maharashtra has changed quite a lot after Ajit’s entry. His ambition to become chief minister is an open secret. He blames his uncle, Shard Pawar, for not being able to give Maharashtra a chief minister from the NCP. Similarly, he has also publicly said that he is not interested in continuing as deputy chief minister for long. “I, too, have a vision for the development of the state and I want to see it implemented,” he once said.

Among the major changes that Ajit initiated after taking over as deputy chief minister was to set up a project monitoring unit to keep track of all big development projects. It was seen as a ploy to get back at Shinde as it is the chief minister who usually monitors all big projects. The chief minister’s war room is where all big projects are born and nurtured. Ajit has now set up an office close to the chief minister’s war room to take stock of these projects. He has already conducted a couple of meetings to evaluate 34 major infrastructure projects.

Ajit used to hold similar evaluation meetings when he was deputy chief minister under Uddhav Thackeray. But Uddhav was not an active administrator and hardly attended office because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ajit, on the other hand, attended office every day even during the peak of the pandemic.

Within days of Ajit holding the evaluation meeting, Shinde made his displeasure public by staying away from the high profile inauguration ceremony of a flyover at Pune’s Chandani Chowk on August 12. It was Shinde who had expedited the project after getting stuck in traffic at the spot a year ago. Ajit, however, said Shinde skipped the event because of health reasons. Three days later, Ajit lost the chance to hoist the national flag in Pune on Independence Day. Instead, he was dispatched to Kolhapur.

Vijay Wadettiwar of the Congress, who is leader of opposition in the assembly, said a cold war was brewing between Shinde and Ajit and the state was suffering because of that. An NCP leader who insisted on anonymity concurred with Wadettiwar’s views. “Earlier Ajit dada was the last word for us because he was Sharad Pawar’s nephew,” he said. “Nobody spoke a word against him. That was how the NCP could keep Congress leaders like Harshvardhan Patil out of the cabinet. Congress leaders used to say there was no point opposing Ajit. Pawar saheb was his kavach kundal (protective shield). Now that is not there. It is the chief minister who issued the diktat [asking all files to be routed through Fadnavis], but it has the blessings of the BJP as Fadnavis is the one who will play the deciding role. If this is not clipping Ajit’s wings, I do not know what it is.”

Mahesh Tapase, chief spokesperson for the Sharad Pawar faction of the NCP, too, argued that there was a cold war. “The Maha Vikas Aghadi has great respect for the Pawar surname and so does Maharashtra. But the order by the chief minister to route all files through Fadnavis clearly shows that they hardly have any respect for the name. It is clearly an attempt to clip Ajit dada’s wings,” he said.

A senior BJP leader said the cold war could aggravate soon. Both Ajit and Shinde want to be the Maratha face of the Maha Yuti (saffron grand alliance). Earlier, Shinde was the only Maratha face of the alliance, but Ajit’s entry has complicated the situation.

Meanwhile, Bharat Gogawale, a legislator from the Shinde camp, said there was no truth to the cold war talk. “These kind of arrangements [like routing the files] are done so that there is no mismanagement in running the departments,” he said. But the Shinde camp continues to be wary and watchful. Sources close to the chief minister said that he would not deliberately step on someone else’s toes, however, if someone did that to him, he would not take it lying down.

“People underestimate Shinde as a politician. He is very shrewd. He is a mass leader like his mentor Anand Dighe and also an administrator like Ajit. He wants his tenure to be remembered, so he will not needle anyone unnecessarily,” said a Shinde aide. “His eyes are set on the Lok Sabha and assembly elections, and he wants to make sure that his flock gets elected once again. If Ajit has other plans, then Shinde knows how to safeguard the interests of his group.”